The past couple (few) (several) years have been, excitingly and exhaustively, very full of professional commitments and opportunities for me. I have been very lucky and have worked very hard and am overall proud of what I’ve accomplished. I have also been very tired, and have been very stressed.
More recently, my not-so-new job as a supervisor has proven to draw on my energies in different ways than my previous jobs and that means I need in turn to arrange my commitments in different ways. So, over the last couple of years, for the first time in my career, I have been turning down more outside-of-work professional projects than I’ve been accepting. And there are so many amazing librarians with so many amazing ideas and there is so much work to be done…and I learn by doing and I like working with great people and I enjoy being busy…well, frankly, this has been a difficult transition for me.
However, two years into my saying-no process, I can also say that it’s been completely worthwhile, and I’m starting to feel more balanced and less stressed than I have for a long time. I’ve also thought a lot about saying no, and so here are some of the things I’ve learned.
It Gets Easier
I know how grateful I am when someone says yes to my request for help, and it feels so good to pay that forward and help someone else. It’s hard to say no because everyone is working hard and I don’t want to let anyone down! And I’m a little afraid of how they will feel! But every time I know I should write that email & don’t want to, I remember the last time I did and that no one wrote me a crappy email back. They may be disappointed, yes, but no one has ever been unreasonable or angry. Remembering that I’m working with professionals who understand what managing commitments entails makes it easier to hit send each time. And the more I do say no, the more my schedule is actually doable, and I remember how much I like doable, which gives me more motivation to maintain a sustainable schedule.
It Doesn’t Get Easier
There’s certainly the relief of not taking something on, when I know I am booked solid. But there’s also regret at not getting to do something cool. And then that something comes around and gets advertised (a workshop, a conference, a blog tour, whatever) and I remember I could have said yes and been a part of it and I go through the regret all over again, and I’m not going to lie, that hasn’t gotten easier. Or I’ll say no and then 4 months later I’m talking to a friend and all of a sudden I realize the cool thing they’re telling me about that they got to do is the something I said no to and it sounds just as fun as I knew it was going to be when I said no. I say yes to things because I LIKE doing things, and when I see them go by without me I do feel a little sad.
Your No Is Your Yes
Yet every time I say no to something, I am saying yes to something I AM ALREADY DOING. I am making sure I continue to have enough time to devote to projects I have already made commitments to. Remembering this is probably one of the best strategies I’ve learned for dealing with the regret of letting opportunities go. I love how it reframes a negative thought into a positive.
Your No Is Someone Else’s Yes
When I say no it means someone else is going to get to say yes. How cool is that? I know I’ve gotten my share of invitations because someone has said no, but THEN said, “But you know who would be good is…” and then has named me along with a few others. When you want to start saying no, make a list of who else you can recommend. Ask colleagues in advance if they’d like to be recommended, and for what types of opportunities. Think of colleagues with less experience for whom you can give the same kind of boost that perhaps one of your mentors had given you. I have a running list like this now, and it takes the sting out of turning something down when I can immediately say, “I can’t take this on right now but you know who would be good?”
It Takes Time
For me saying no was less like declaring bankruptcy and more like making snowball debt payments. I didn’t quit everything I had going on at once; I started saying no to new things and looking for ways to reduce my level of responsibility in current projects. And it took me probably 12-18 months to really start to see the effects on my calendar & peace of mind and almost 2 years to come down finally to my goal level. This was a long process for me and it FELT like a long process. If you are ready to start saying no, make some lists and plan some exit strategies so your expectations are realistic.
It Doesn’t Take Time
I am a big planner and when I realized I had shifted from “busy” to “overwhelmed,” part of me felt like I needed a plan for saying no before I could start saying no. Well, I didn’t, I just needed to say no to that Next Thing. And then the Next Thing After That. As the nos piled up and my time started to free up, then I was able to think a little more systematically about my next steps & next goals, and be a little more strategic about my nos and my yesses.
I have more to say about saying no! Watch for two more posts, about different types of no, and knowing when to say no.
In the meantime, what do you know about saying no?